Glasgow has a long association with whisky. Robin Laing tells its story
In September thousands of people will congregate in George Square for Glasgow’s second Whisky Live event. Glaswegians think of their city as a no-nonsense sort of place, where whisky is the natural drink – quite different from the pretentious sherry drinkers of Edinburgh. But what are the facts? What is Glasgow’s whisky pedigree?They say Saint Mungo founded Glasgow in the sixth century but from the 17th century it experienced rapid development as a city of commerce. Trading opportunities with the new world favoured ports on the west of Britain and the Clyde had one of the best anchorages in Europe.Glasgow became the ‘Merchant City’ and fortunes were made in cotton, tobacco and shipbuilding.Eventually Glasgow overtook Edinburgh in size becoming the ‘second city of the Empire.’ In 1725, just after the Union of Parliaments, the London Government increased the malt tax in Scotland. Angry citizens assembled in Glasgow to prevent the revenue officers from exercising this duty and the mob gutted the mansion of Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, an MP who had supported the tax.Troops were called and in the following frenzy nine citizens were shot dead and 17 were wounded.Ironically, Campbell used his compensation from the city to buy the Island of Islay. His grandson later established the town of Bowmore.Early in the 17th century most whisky was made domestically, unlicensed and unregulated as it had been for generations. In 1781 private distilling was outlawed and legal distilleries began springing up in Glasgow, including Dundashill, Yoker and Littlemill, but this period also saw the ‘whisky wars’ between the illicit distillers and the excise men.Glasgow was a ready market for illegal whisky.The nearby Campsie Hills and Eaglesham Moor provided great cover for illicit distilling and the Clyde was a highway for the ‘peat-reek’ makers of Arran and Argyll.The cruel aftermath of the 1745 Rebellion and the Highland Clearances drove thousands of Highlanders to Glasgow and massive waves of immigrants arrived fleeing starvation in Ireland.Both groups brought with them a culture of whisky. In the early 19th century Glasgow was a mix of cultures and a ferment of political unrest. Rapid growth and prosperity went side by side with terrible poverty and disease. Drunkenness was widespread and notorious.Coincidentally, the Excise Act of 1823 ushered in a boom period for whisky distilling in Scotland and a further 16 Glasgow distilleries appeared. Glasgow had become a whisky city.In its distilling heyday the river Clyde was lined with bonded warehouses. By 1835 Glasgow had one licensed public house to every 14 families and an illicit network of hundreds of shebeens. These supplied cheap drink, often badly made illicit moonshine or adulterated whisky.In 1872 the North British Daily Mail exposed the great scandal of adulterated whisky by acquiring samples from dozens of pubs and shebeens for analysis. The majority had been cut with substances like turpentine, wood alcohol, potato spirits, sulphuric acid or varnish.Of 30 samples tested only two were genuine whisky and a number were found to have no actual whisky in them at all. This caused tremendous outrage and debate across the city.It would take more than a scandal to separate a Glaswegian from his dram but it probably did sound the death knell for shebeens and the licensing laws for public houses became stricter. It also provided a weapon for the Temperance Movement that had recently begun to flourish in the city.Strident voices had been croaking from pulpits and soapboxes in the city for years. Temperance Societies established in Maryhill and Greenock in 1829 became the start of a national movement.Eventually there were some 40 societies and thousands of members in Glasgow alone. Coffee shops, tearooms and Temperance Hotels sprang up. There were even teetotal steamboats on the Clyde!The Temperance movement may have been a reaction to the drunken excesses of the squalid city, but class was also a prominent feature. The poor folk staggering ‘blind drunk’ (sometimes literally) from the shebeens and neglecting their weans were labourers and ‘common’ people and middle class Reformers were always keen to help them improve their lives.The respectable classes in Glasgow tended to do their drinking in clubs with obscure names and strange activities, which were flimsily disguised drinking clubs for gentlemen; the Face Club, the Dirty Shirt Club, the Grogg Club and the Pig Club, to name a few.The whisky industry continued to have its ups and downs but it is unlikely that the Temperance Movement had much influence.The whisky market had become global and fortunes were made in the boom times and lost in the slumps.Glasgow, with its great tradition of trading, had its share of whisky barons, pioneers, merchants, and blenders, including Lowrie’s, Robertson and Baxter, Robert Brown (Bulloch Lade), Mackie’s (White Horse Distillers) and many more.The most successful Glasgow whisky baron was William Teacher, who established an empire that lasted for 160 years. Producing one of the great blends, he established a network of 18 ‘dram shops’, which made him the biggest licensee in the city.Unlike shebeens, these dram shops were clean establishments, with clear rules, including no smoking and no ‘standing of rounds’. The barmen were large Highlanders who would quickly eject any inebriated customer.Teacher’s was the last company to supply bootleg to Prohibition America and only became involved to ‘let the Americans have good Scotch whisky to drink in place of their own poisonous distillations’. Perhaps they saw an unhappy similarity between the ‘Jake walk’ of brain damaged Americans and the ‘Glasgow gait’ of those poisoned by shebeen whisky.Since the heady days when William Teacher was creating his empire Glasgow has suffered a loss of distilleries comparable to that of Campbeltown, though the tale is not so well known.There are many complex reasons why distilleries fail. Some early distilleries were lost as the urban expansion swallowed up their water supply and the urban land values must be relevant.Some Glasgow distilleries had dramatic endings. Fire destroyed Tambowie in 1914 (tales are told of local people braving the flames to salvage whisky). In the 1925 Adelphi distillery disaster, a wash charger and two washbacks collapsed, killing one man and injuring nine.Adelphi’s malt distillery closed shortly after though the grain distillery continued to operate. Yoker distillery was irreparably damaged in the 1941 Clydeside Blitz (Auchentoshan lost 300,000 gallons of whisky in bond in the same raids).Glasgow has a reputation for being a whisky city and its historical link is without question. Today, nearly all the distilleries are gone but it still has two significant grain distilleries, Port Dundas and Strathclyde, and one malt distillery, Auchentoshan, which now has an attractive visitor centre.A number of whisky makers and merchants continue to operate out of Glasgow, including Morrison Bowmore, Dewar’s, Whyte and Mackay, Speyside Distillers, Hart Brothers and Douglas Laing.Recent times have witnessed a revival of whisky bars such as the Pot Still, with extensive selections of drams.It seems Glasgow is still a place where the whisky business thrives, where people enjoy and appreciate their dram and where whisky is the badge of hospitality and the lubricant of good social craic. And that all sounds like a pretty good checklist of things to be found at Whisky Live this September.
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